Dear Dan: The slow economy is taking a toll on our business. Things really feel stagnant here. What are some good ways to regain a little competitive energy that's gone flat along with business overall? - Slumping
Dear Slumping: If sales are stalled and things seem stagnant at your business, this might be a good time to consider a fresh look at how you are operating in some key areas. This can be especially valuable if you've been in business a long time, in which case some of your methods may need a little freshening up.
But even if you've only been around a short time, small businesses moving beyond the initial stages of startup find themselves facing an entire new set of challenges. The "to-do" list gets even longer, and is filled with tasks that didn't exist before. Likewise, a bad economy adds to the to-do list as well.
A website that seemed great a couple of years ago might now be woefully inadequate. Your business might need to review benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans to look for cost savings. Vendor contracts may be ripe for cost savings. Outdated technology might be causing you to lose business. Bookkeeping systems could use streamlining and marketing methods that once sparkled might simply not be working any more.
And what about that pool of customers you've carefully coddled? Are you taking care of them like you should? Customer service is an area that's prone to breakdown.
Wherever you turn, there are needs that will either become problems for your business, or opportunities, depending on whether you put them off until later or face them now. Here are seven ways that you can use current conditions to change the way you run your business:
1. Perform a business self-diagnostic. So you don't run off and try to fix the wrong things, first examine the different components of your business operations, such as sales, marketing, Internet, finances, employees, technology and others. Make two lists: One list of things that are working, and another of things that aren't. Don't assume anything. Just because you or your business has done something a certain way in the past doesn't mean it's adding value to your business. Old habits may in fact be hindering your success, so this is the time to search them out and make changes.
Some business owners are turning to web-based business "dashboards" to get a clearer picture of their operations all in one place. WorkingPoint.com, for example, is a new application geared specifically to small business. The service lets you import contacts, assign action items and inventory, generate invoices, track expenses, product real time financial reports and more with a few clicks.
2. Overhaul your website. This is a place where many small businesses slip. Websites are living entities that need to constantly evolve. Stagnant, outdated and ugly websites are a quick way to turn off an increasingly web-savvy customer universe. One service that can help is Web.com, where you'll find advice on doing it yourself - including site design, online marketing, link building, SEO training and more - as well as services that will do it for you.
3. Hold brainstorming sessions. Brainstorming is one of the most powerful ways any small business can find solutions to tough problems. But many business owners and entrepreneurs don't use this age-old tool effectively. The key is to enlist as many viewpoints as you can, from employees, vendors, tech people and outside advisors. Test out as many promising ideas as you reasonably can and keep the best.
4. Eyeball your sales copy. Are your marketing messages making the grade? If sales have slumped, the answer may be "no." Make sure your main theme is still effective, that it is supported with current facts, figures and third-party references, and that it describes the benefit customers will receive from your product or service. Are your message headlines "grabbers" and does your sales copy flow smoothly and quickly? A good place to find marketing ideas is MarketingSherpa.com.
5. Line up testimonials and customer reviews. Customer testimonials are a terrific marketing tool for small business. Make a practice of encouraging, gathering and using customer testimonials on a regular basis. Many small retailers are beginning to take the initiative, embracing the realm of "user (customer) generated content" and driving revenue by helping customers post reviews on their sites. It's actually quite easy with web-based applications that will put the functionality on your site for a modest monthly fee. PowerReviews (www.powerreviewsexpress.com) wins raves from small business owners for easy implementation.
6. Take care of your best customers. First you need to know who they are (and aren't). Examine your entire customer list to determine which ones are the most profitable for your business. Keep in mind that while you might go out of your way to do things for certain customers, they might not be your best. Tell the true VIP customers you really appreciate their business. Ask about their needs and encourage their feedback.
7. Engage employees as partners. If energy has gone flat at your business it could be because employees no longer feel fully engaged in what your business is trying to do. Share information about how the business is performing and what its strategic goals are for the year. Ask for their input and really listen to and implement their suggestions. Look for ways to stoke their passion for what you're doing.